Award-winning artisan cheese makers Cressida and Michael Cains live and work on their family property; 200-acres of lush, rolling hills in Robertson, the green heart of the Southern Highlands. Named after the Italian word for sheep, Pecora Dairy is Australia’s only working, pure East Friesian ewes, the most productive breed of dairy sheep in the world.
The dairy was the first Australian cheesery licensed to make raw milk cheese in 2018; the result, named Yarrawa after the indigenous word for Robertson's unique cool climate rainforest, uses very simple starter cultures, resulting in a buttery cheese that is a complete expression of the Cains’ sustainable farming ethos.
Testament to their hard work and passion, in its first year of operation, Pecora Dairy won a gold medal for its Blue Cheese at the Sydney Royal and in 2021 Yarrawa was awarded Champion at the Royal Sydney Cheese and Dairy Show – the first time a raw milk cheese has won a major cheese show in Australia.
“Sheep milk is unlike anything else. It's one of the most nutrient dense and rich milks, which makes it incredibly suitable for cheese making,” Cressida says. “It's way higher in protein and calcium than cow or goat milk. It’s really the Rolls Royce milk for cheese making, which makes it extremely attractive to us.”
With headlines baying the decline of Australian family dairies, Cressida also sees the stark realities of the future – and feels compelled to take action. “Ultimately, we've really devalued milk and I think the consumer has a very skewed understanding of what it takes to produce a litre and what it's worth,” she says. “In 1980, there were 22,000 Dairy Farms and today there are just over 5000. In 2019, we had 486 small, family-owned dairies close, which is the largest annual exit. Small family owned dairy farms are finding it difficult to make a profit and that's because the concentration of market power is with a small number of processors and the tightly held retail market, which makes it really difficult for small dairy farmers to have any bargaining power.”
The notion of empowerment sparked Cressida’s idea for Dairy Cocoon, her non-for-profit digital platform and support hub. The online portal helps build entrepreneurial muscle for small dairy farmers by offering a pathway towards profitable alternatives like cheese, yoghurt, gelato and branded milk. “Diary Cocoon is not a silver bullet to solve all the problems of the dairy industry, but it's another way for farmers to take back control and become more of a price setter,” she says. “Australia is importing a huge amount of cheese. In 1980, we imported 65,000 tons and last year we imported 105,000 tons and that's going up by about 4,000 tons every year so there is huge opportunity for local independent dairy brands.”
“Australians are really wanting better quality dairy products and there is certainly a need and a want for independent brands. Particularly with this situation we're now in with COVID-19, people are really considering the provenance of their food; they want local and Australian made.”
Dairy Cocoon offers business modeling and marketing plans to farmers, as well as information about industry specific courses. The support hub takes the form of mentors, consultants and a private Facebook group with industry peers.
After winning the NSW category for Agrifutures Australia’s Rural Women’s Award, Cressida’s vision has been put squarely on the map. “I firmly believe that a rising tide can lift all boats. I have such a passion for the Dairy Industry and I believe strongly there is room for so many more independent brands,” she says. “The AgriFutures Rural Women's Award is an amazing and supportive program. To now be part of the alumni, who are an incredible bunch of capable, intelligent women, so collaborative and supportive of each other, is an absolute honour.”
The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award is Australia’s leading award acknowledging and supporting the essential role women play in rural industries, businesses and communities. Applications for 2022 open August 2021.